Of Gangsters and the Great Depression

The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers by Thomas Mullen

It’s the 1930s in the height of the great depression, millions are out of work and bands of bank-robbing outlaws are regarded as folk heroes in the USA. Former public enemy number one, John Dillinger, has recently been sent to his grave and stepping up to the top spot on the G-Men’s wanted list are the infamous Firefly Brothers.

As the book opens, Jason and Whit Fireson wake up to find themselves laid out on tables in the morgue. They’re both riddled with bulletholes, they should be dead but somehow they are inexplicably alive …

Jason stood, the tile cold on his feet, and stared wide-eyed at Whit. He reached forward and hesitantly touched his brother’s stubbly left cheek. It felt cold, but everything felt cold at that moment. He grabbed the sheet that lay up to his brother’s neck, waited a moment, and slowly began to pull it down. In the center of Whit’s chest, like a target, was what could only be a bullet wound.
As he took in this sight he breathed slowly – yes, he was breathing, despite all the metal he must be carrying inside, clanging about like a piggy bank – and leaned forward in grief, involuntarily putting his right hand on his brother’s biceps. It flexed into alertness, and Whit’s head turned toward Jason. Whit’s jaw was clenched and his brows quivered. Then his eyes darted down.
‘You’re naked,’ Whit said.
‘That hardly seems the most noteworthy thing here.’ Their voices were hoarse.
White sat up, still staring at Jason’s pockmarked chest. Eventually his eyes shifted down to his own body, and he lurched back as if shot again, nearly falling from his cooling board.
‘What …?’ His voice tailed off.
‘I don’t know.’
They stared at each other for a long while, each waiting for the other to explain the situation or to bust up at the practical joke.

So the Firefly brothers get a miraculous second chance. The next thing for them to do is to let their folks know they’re not dead – complicated, as they know their Ma, younger brother, and their lovers will be watched. Jason is desperate to get some money to his Ma and misses his heiress girlfriend Darcy terribly, but until they can work out what happened, who sold them out and get some more money it’s a problem – they’ll have to play dead for a while.

The one person missing here is the brothers’ Pop, who didn’t approve of the life Jason and Whit chose to live, yet ultimately ended up on the wrong side of the law himself. He was however a profound influence on both of them, and Mullen tells his story and how the boys became bank-robbers in between the current day episodes as the Firefly brothers try to sort things out and carry on with their ‘endeavours’ as they call the heists, and the all too real possibilities of getting shot again.

This is much more than just a gangster novel, although there are some great set-pieces involving typical gangster types with appropriate nicknames such as ‘Brickbat Saunders’, and Darcy as the rich girl who likes a bit of rough was great value. Beyond the fun, Mullen explores the hard times that punctured the American Dream and produced the bad boy heroes. The Fireson family dynamics and the sibling rivalry between the three brothers features strongly, giving the novel that epic generational feel, dare I say it, akin to The Godfather, (although Pop is no Don Corleone). Jason is a real charmer and a thinking-man’s hoodlum; he justly takes the starring role, and gave this period-thriller solid substance which made it a pleasure to read. (8/10)

Pub 2010 by 4th Estate. 397 pages.  Book supplied by the publisher after sounding me out. Thank you.

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10 thoughts on “Of Gangsters and the Great Depression

  1. I requested this from the library after you first mentioned it on the blog and it has just arrived. Your review has hastened it to the top of the pile – sounds exactly like what I am wanting to read at the moment! Thank you

    • Glad to be of service! Let’s swap recommendations … is there anything you’ve been reading lately I should try?

  2. Oooooh I am now kicking myself I didnt say yes to a review copy of this (I don’t always you see ha!) as it sounds like a perfect summer read that would just suit my mood! Something a little bit different too!

    • It was jolly good, Simon, said she, rubbing it in – well just a little! It was an ideal summer read too.

  3. Have you read any of Jim Butcher’s Dresden novels? They are about the only wizard in the Chicago telephone book and I found them addictive – since I have just finished the most recent I expect withdrawal symptoms!
    On the crime front, have you read the wonderful Graham Hurley’s novels set in Portsmouth?
    They start with, I think, “Turnstone” and are really very good – more to the point they ring true which is more than I can say for a couple of much touted books that I have read recently!
    Other than that I seem to be reading books that you recommended recently!
    Just finished The Still Point which I really enjoyed although I didn’t have long enough periods of uninterrupted reading time which I think I would have benefited from, and I am loving The Firefly Brothers although not very far on with it yet.

    • I have the first two Jim Butchers in the piles – I’ll dig them out and give them a go certainly. Graham Hurley I’m unfamiliar with, so I’ll take a look … Thanks for the recommendations, and glad the Firefly bros are going down well.

  4. I think I have one of Graham Hurley’s earlier novels and will put it in the post to you if I can find it! Meant to post you the other Magdalen Nabb’s today but I had to leave the house in a hurry and forgot them so I will put them in the post tomorrow!

    • No rush Liz, but thank you! Let me know if you want them back. I’m just starting the first of the Dresden Files and loving it.

  5. Just finished The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers and thoroughly agree with you. The sense of period was so vivid that it almost felt that you were living their story and it really brought home to me the truly desperate state that some people were in during the early 30’s.
    Wouldn’t it make a brilliant film? Only problem is I have no idea who could play Jason Fireson – so long as it wasn’t Brad Pitt although I could see Angelina as Darcy!

    • Glad you liked it.

      How about Hugh Jackman for the film? That would work for me!

      I can also envisage a fantasy comedy version starring Jake & Elwood Blues, along with Carrie Fisher as Darcy, but that would need divine intervention. (The Blues Brothers is my favourite film of all time BTW).

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